Peace dividend

Friday, 5 June 2009 

For a new government not to lose a senior Cabinet member within the first eighteen months is not being ‘remarkably free of accident-prone moments’ as the media seemed to be suggesting yesterday – unless, of course, you compare it to the hapless start of the Howard government which lost five Ministers in the same time. Howard had come in promising a new direction after thirteen years of Labor but without any program to do so. So his Ministers were going to act in a different way instead, which of course they didn’t. Howard was eventually to give up even his code of conduct and flounder along against an exhausted Labor party until 9/11 came along. This government is better prepared for the vacuum and so has generally avoided the same mistakes.

Yet what is striking about Fitzgibbon’s resignation is the triviality of the reason for his departure (what was it again?) against the importance of his position. Howard’s departing Ministers generally held relatively unimportant portfolios compared to the vital role of Defence. Certainly it would be unthinkable in the past for such a key Minister, overseeing the country’s national security, to be chucked out on such a flimsy pretext. In the good old days, Ministers of such seniority usually only resigned as a way of knifing their respective PMs.

Howard only began to pull his government together when he could present a national security problem for it to address. That clear threat has now gone and Fitzgibbon has struggled to force the Defence establishment to adapt. It could be argued that the loss of a Defence Minister could only be possible when such a clear national security threat is no longer a part of the political scene but also when the Australian military needs to be realigned to that fact. Rudd’s anti-political code of conduct may make it more in tune with the current weakness of the political class but the easy loss of this Minster shows it is still there and if anything is worse than before.

Yet there is a more unsettling aspect to what happened yesterday. It was not the reasons for the resignation but what followed after it. As usual the coalition missed it, thinking perhaps we were about to see a repeat of the sleaze allegations currently destroying the British political class, by suggesting that Rudd was, er, in hock to a used car salesman.

Someone should tell the government that Fitzgibbon’s continuing public talk of a conspiracy against him in the Defence Ministry is not a good look. Not because it is blaming staff like Howard’s Ministers used to blame theirs for incompetence. Rather it looks as though the government is losing control of a vital function of the state. One could go back to the damage done by Whitlam’s Attorney General raiding his own ASIO department in 1973, or more recently, the Howard government’s loss of control over the judiciary in the Haneef affair, which signalled the terminal stage of that government, to know that drift is one thing, but loss of control over the state apparatus is something else.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 5 June 2009.

Filed under The Australian state

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4 responses to “Peace dividend”

  1. Ric on 5th June 2009 12:14 pm

    Is there a normal speed at which you should lose Ministers?

    We had Mick Young and John Brown early in the Hawke Govt, the former a key part of the apparatus according to Hawke.

    I suspect there is a ‘encourager les autres’ aspect to it too – a tightening of authority under Rudd and Gillard. Rudd may well have given Fitz a good spot to thanks for his support – but those favours are now all repaid.

    I still think there’s tonnes the media don’t get – Costello mocking Swan as if Swan was the real Treasurer and as if the Treasurer had any real control over the economy. The real battle is Gillard sticking the knife into what’s left of the unions.

    I was glad to hear at least Oakshott in Parliament say that the CPRS ETS is an economic measure, not an environmental one – some people have been reading your blog.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 5th June 2009 5:39 pm

    You’re right that to lose a Minster early is not new. Young was key, but to the government (a role he could still carry out after he resigned). But I would argue that he wasn’t in charge of a key part of the state apparatus. In terms of immediate electoral consequence, or vis-a-vis the coalition, Fitzgibbon’s departue is not much beans, but as a sign of the government’s control over the state, it is.

    I think the appointment of the government’s chief head-kicker to replace Fitzgibbon is a sign that they recognise the seriousness of the situation.

  3. Scott on 11th June 2009 10:27 am

    Yes, Fitzgibbon breached the ministerial code of conduct but what real credibility do such codes have in this post 911 era? The gross violations of ethics and decency that occurred in the Howard Government post 911 make relatively minor incursions of a ministerial code of conduct trivial. Howard publicly deemed the behaviour of certain ministers acceptable in the wake of gross violations of human decency and ethics, so one could be excused for scratching one’s head about why Fitzgibbon’s conduct really warranted his resignation. I think most members of the public would already find it hard to recall what he did that was so bad. The Howard Government set precedents that largely erased the Westminister style of ministerial conduct in many voters’ minds. And as for the Helen Liu matter, would the Libs have carried on the way they did if she was an American with links to Halle Burton? I think not.

  4. Ric on 13th June 2009 6:20 pm

    Liu was not a spy, and crazy to think she was. She was a introducer and later, a go-between. She seems to have had no role in recent years if media reports are accurate.

    China does not have the endless thinktanks and institutes that the USA uses to acclimatise budding overseas politicians to their policies. Think of the endless trips union officials and student politicians get sent on to ‘Friendship assocations’ and so on with the Yanks.

    And even if China did have these things in abundance, they are little use to anyone but Rudd and Wong – I guess the only Chinese speakers in the Labor Government who could benefit from them.

    Read Chris Patten on the difference between the “Old China Hands” and “Old Friends of China” – an interesting explanation of the difference and how both can become mesmerised by Chinese influence.

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